Hua Hsu's memoir 'Stay True' brings the 1990s Bay Area to life in an evocative story of male friendship cut short too soon. (Devlin Claro/Doubleday)
What were the ’90s? I ask myself this question more and more lately. In the past month, I’ve watched a reunited Pavement amble through a set of slacker anthems, witnessed high school fashion turn into grunge 2.0, tried to ignore dumb internet lists and endured daily questions about the decade from my 13-year-old daughter. “What was your favorite movie in the ’90s?” she asks me. “Was Weezer cool in the ’90s?” “Is this shirt ’90s?”
Movies, music and fashion are all part of the decade, sure. Less easy to recall, 30 years later, is what daily life was actually like, and how people felt most of the time.
I devoured Hua Hsu’s Stay True (Doubleday; $26) in one sitting, finding new answers to the question on every page. A memoir of Hua’s college years at UC Berkeley, Stay True is primarily about his relationship with his best friend, Ken. Confident, loud and outgoing, Ken belongs to a frat, listens to the Dave Matthews Band and comes from a Japanese American family, “bright and optimistic in a way I found suspect.” In other words: mainstream.
Hua, meanwhile, is one of the millions whose outlook was changed by Nirvana. Philosophical, cynical and quiet, he nonetheless strikes up an odd friendship with Ken, who is genuinely curious in his clothes, music and books. The two grow close through smoke breaks and road trips, and stay up late together talking about life. (“We came up with brilliant theories,” Hua writes, “but forgot to write them down.”)
Suddenly, Ken is murdered in a senseless carjacking, and nothing is the same. Hua describes his grief: he leans on friends, blames himself, goes to therapy and saves nearly everything Ken left behind. Somehow, some way, he settles into acceptance.
The details of this particular trauma are specific. But to the lingering question — what were the ’90s? — Stay True also serves as an expertly pieced-together collage of life in Berkeley as a twentysomething in the Clinton years, a snapshot that will be immediately recognizable to readers who came of age in that decade. Part of this is achieved through simple markers, now out of date: the early internet of listservs, mall CD stores, fax machines. The book’s 173 pages are rife with obsolete objects, remembered from journals, clippings from his zine, and the many boxes of ephemera that he’s saved. (Hua is a prolific caretaker of stuff.)
The other part — the life that happens with the people close to you, around and between the stuff — is what Hua’s so good at capturing. It’s what’s in the faxes from his dad in Taiwan; what’s on the CDs from the mall and how his friends react to it all. Stay True describes Berkeley institutions like Top Dog, Amoeba, the Daily Cal and Revolution Books; it also nails the experience of shopping at anglophile-indie record store Mod Lang, back when record stores were the only way to access new music, and clerks could afford to be haughty.
One part early in the book describes life in 1980s Cupertino, among the first wave of software engineers emigrating from Asia. Nostalgia is a curious driver of Hua’s work; he reassembles the past carefully, but not necessarily in the service of a rosy-eyed, things-used-to-be-better view. The Chinese immigrants who moved to the South Bay ten years later, Hua writes, “probably didn’t even know there was once only a single Asian grocer in the area, and it wasn’t even that good, and you had to drive a half hour to get there."
Given the setting in Berkeley, political organizing plays a part in Hua’s life; Jesse Jackson speaks at Sproul Plaza, and Hua’s friends are excited, until three weeks later when he comes to speak again, and then later, again. Hua helps out at the Black Panthers’ storefront, protests the anti-affirmative action initiative Prop. 209, and eventually volunteers at a Richmond youth center and works with prisoners inside San Quentin.
What were the ’90s? Honestly, most of it was boredom. Just as important, it was you and your friends’ various ways to alleviate boredom. That’s why I never felt comfortable with the ’90s being known as the “slacker” generation. Hua is bored, but to stave off stagnancy, he is constantly active — he makes zines and mixtapes, gets involved in causes, writes ridiculous movie scripts, marches in protests, saves a lot of things along the way. He does most of it with a close group of friends by his side.
That’s what makes Ken’s death so heartbreaking. What’s worse: boredom or loss? How do you fill the hole left by a dead friend the same way you once filled long stretches of empty time, together? By the end of the book, it becomes clear that Hua’s achievement is the not-so-simple act, 24 years later, of keeping his friend alive.